Road Trip: Why I Bailed on Wood Buffalo National Park

I hear my husband’s voice at the other end of the phone, exuberant merely at having heard from us, and I begin to sob.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps.

I’ve travelled extensively, both within Canada and around the world, and I’ve never felt as far from home as I did that day in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.

My daughter and I had already driven in a Hymer Aktiv 2.0 campervan for 15 hours over two days to get there from Edmonton, covering more than 1,300 km. Much of it had been on roads where wildlife is abundant and cellphone signal completely absent. It’s not unusual to go several hours without seeing another settlement – or another car, or any sign of human life apart from asphalt and power lines disappearing endlessly into the horizon.

By the time I’m on that phone call in the Wood Buffalo National Park visitor centre parking lot, I’m already edgy and questioning what I’ve gotten us into – and relieved that we’ve managed to get this far without incident. And we still have another hour to go, 60 km down a gravel road, to reach the Pine Lake campground where we’re to be completely out of contact with the rest of the world for another two full days.

My husband thinks he’s keeping his concern to himself, but subtlety is not his forte and I read between the lines. With none of the questions asked aloud, my daughter and I dutifully say our goodbyes, hang up, and set off on our way.

We turn back onto Northwest Territories Highway 5. Shortly after we pass the eastern boundary of Fort Smith, a small roadside sign indicates that we’ve made the turn south and are finally back in Alberta.

There and Back Again

At more than 44,000 square kilometres, Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada and one of the largest in the world. During the winter, those who care to brave the ice roads can reach the park from the south without ever leaving Alberta; in the summer, the only access is to drive up and around through the Northwest Territories.

Visitors drive north on the Mackenzie Highway to cross the 60th parallel – stopping at the visitor centre, if they wish, to pick up a certificate as evidence of the achievement – turn east onto Highway 5 just south of Hay River, and drive roughly another 270 km through the northern portion of the park to just shy of the highway’s fair-weather terminus in Fitzgerald, Alberta.

Up until last summer, a large section of the park’s portion of the highway was gravel, and in fact many maps still mark roughly 60 kilometres of road as such. As of late 2017, though, the entire stretch from Hay River to Fort Smith is fully paved, which makes the trip much easier.

Just as we had on our way to Fort Smith, we spot wood bison on the gravel road to Pine Lake. On our first encounter along Highway 5, we had to come to a complete stop for eight bison blocking the road from one end to the other. This, I’m told, is known as a northern traffic jam.

And it’s to be expected, since the park was created in 1922 to protect these very creatures, the largest free-roaming herd of bison left in the world. The roads are flat and bison don’t leap out onto the road like deer, so they’re not difficult to see in the daytime. It’s best not to need to be anywhere in a hurry, though. If they’re already on the road when you encounter them, all that’s to be done is park and wait for them to move on.

We reach Pine Lake – again, without incident, so I breathe another sigh of relief – and have a look around.

There’s not a single soul around for miles. Actually, that may not be true: there’s exactly one other trailer in the entire campground, but I can’t tell whether it’s occupied.

We take our pick from the remaining campsites and try to look around. Pine Lake is unique in that it’s formed by three interconnected sinkholes, and as a result its waters are richly aqua-coloured and warm in the summer. Despite a passing mention of leeches at the visitor centre, I’d had every intention of trying out one of the park’s rental stand-up paddleboards, or at the very least a canoe, but the mosquitoes drive us back inside the RV as quickly as we emerge.

One of the primary reasons I chose late August for our visit is that the mosquitoes can be just awful in the far north in early summer. These ones, it seems, didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to be long gone. I try putting bug spray on, and I’m pretty sure I can hear their tiny, mocking cackles of laughter.

Maybe that’s for the best, since the playground hasn’t been upgraded in some time, and my daughter quickly loses interest in being outdoors at all.

With no cell service, no emergency phone – the pad has been laid, but the phone hasn’t been hooked up yet – and absolutely no one within earshot if one of us screams at the top of our lungs for help, typical camping activities like swimming or even lighting a campfire suddenly seem out of the question.

My normally free-wheeling, adventurous spirit has finally hit its limit.

I’ve never bailed so hard on anything in my life. I can’t get back up that road fast enough.

We high-tail it back to Fort Smith and make it just before sundown, which leaves me very thankful for the very long northern sunsets, and we check into the territorial park campground in Fort Smith instead. (It probably goes without saying, but territorial parks are the northern equivalent of provincial parks and are run by territorial governments.) Although we roll in unannounced just as she’s trying to shutter the office for the night, the manager greets us warmly and takes wonderfully good care of us.

With a campfire blazing, nary a mosquito to be found, high-speed cell service – when I send him an unexpected text, my husband finally confesses that he’d never been thrilled with the idea of being out of touch for so long – and hot, clean showers waiting for us in the morning, I’m finally able to relax and take in the northern scenery we came for.

The stars look very different at higher latitudes. In the gaps between the soaring pines of the boreal forest, constellations seem as though they’ve been zoomed in, and passing satellites are far more prominent. Another reason we chose late August timing is that the return of regular nightfall usually marks the resurgence of the Aurora Borealis. We were unlucky; the sky never danced for us. But we did drift to sleep beneath a fascinating faint green glow emanating from the north.

Seeing (Some of) the Sights

The next morning, I decide not to make the journey back down the road to Pine Lake. The campervan has an exposed propane tank underneath it among other sensitive systems, and I feel I’ve probably pressed my luck enough. Plus, it’s imperative not to drive along Highway 5 – or any northern roads, for that matter – after dark unless absolutely necessary. Most of the park’s other highlights can be found along the highway, so I determine that it will be safer for us to journey on to Hay River and stay there for the night instead, to reduce our driving time over each of our final two days.

Before leaving Fort Smith, we take a rugged and hilly walk down a short hiking trail to view the Rapids of the Drowned on the Slave River. My daughter splashes around a little in the water near the banks, and we spot a small group of whooping cranes perched on some rocks far in the distance. Wood Buffalo is the final remaining natural nesting site of this endangered species, and there are several locations where they can be viewed reliably.

One of those is at the salt plain, another of the park’s unique features. Left behind by ancient seas, the park invites you to sink your toes into the salt-rich soil and walk through nature’s spa treatment. Though I have every intention of visiting it, I somehow miss the turn-off. I don’t see how, exactly; it’s not as though there are a lot of turn-offs to miss. But by the time I realize I have, I’m several hours up the road and not about to turn around.

The last stop before passing over the park’s western boundary is the final karst sinkhole. We climb out of the campervan to snap a couple of photos. There’s a picnic area here, but it’s overgrown and looks like it hasn’t seen use in some time. A couple of minutes later, we’re back in the Aktiv and bidding Wood Buffalo farewell.

The territorial campground in Hay River is just as welcoming as the one in Fort Smith. Our campsite is steps away from the municipal beach on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. It’s already too cold for a swim in late August, but my daughter spends some time on the expansive playground, and we take a walk toward the tiny island where gulls gather in the summer as a bald eagle glides by silently overhead. Dipping my fingers into the waters of a lake that few people will ever lay eyes on in their lifetimes is an exhilarating experience.

Why Did I Choose to Do This?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps.

The most well-worn book on my childhood bedroom shelf was my copy of the oversized Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas with the green cover. I’d peel back its pages, barely held together by the unraveling spine, and wonder wistfully what each of the places, and those paved lines that connect them, would look and feel like to visit.

The drive from Edmonton up the Mackenzie Highway and into the Northwest Territories was one of the first to capture my attention. It’s something I’d always intended to do someday, but I’d never formulated a good enough excuse. “Because I want to” never seemed to carry the gravitas to justify the risk or expense.

That changed, though, when my daughter started taking an interest in Parks Canada’s Xplorers program. It’s designed to encourage kids and their families to get out and explore this country’s most important natural and historical places. When I spotted Wood Buffalo National Park on the list of participating sites – far and away one of the most isolated and remote locations in the entire program – that was all the convincing I needed. Challenge accepted.

By leaving Pine Lake early and missing the turn-off for the salt plains, we didn’t complete the minimum of five activities requested by the booklet. But you’d better believe we took that tag home with us anyway. We may not have seen as much of the park as we could have, but we still earned it.

Getting There

I didn’t realize how much anxiety I had been carrying with me about this drive until I was already halfway through it.

There were cues I should have picked up on. For instance, there’s a Sobeys in northern Edmonton that I can never set foot in again. I went through it like a hurricane gathering supplies, thrown into a tizzy by my concern that we weren’t going to reach our first stop in High Level, Alberta, by nightfall. (My kid was wearing a Toronto Argonauts hoodie, too. I can only imagine the disparaging centre-of-the-universe remarks that were going through the locals’ heads.)

As it turns out, this concern was heavily justified. Deciding that I could manage this drive on my own was abject stupidity.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it to others. Before becoming a parent, I used to back-country hike and camp fairly often, and if it’s wilderness and complete isolation you want then Wood Buffalo has it in spades. Besides, a road trip to the far north is a badge-of-honour journey that people take as much to say they’ve done it as to get anything out of the experience. But you’ll get much more out of it by following some of the basic advice that I ignored so that you can relax and know you’ve done all you can for your own safety. We got through it without incident in the end, but I chalk that up almost entirely to luck.

  • First of all, take at least two licensed drivers with you, ideally in more than one vehicle. As the only adult, had something happened to us on a remote road outside of cell phone range – a flat tire, a mechanical issue, an accident, whatever – we might have had to wait hours for help and would have been at the mercy of whoever turned up. The potential for putting myself, and more importantly my daughter, in an unnecessarily traumatic situation was far higher than necessary. At minimum, there should be at least one other responsible adult who’s capable of getting help, and a second vehicle would reduce the time needed to do so exponentially.
  • Be sure to pack plenty of food, a first aid kit, and if you’re going in the winter, supplies like blankets, candles, sand, and shovels. We were in a campervan, so we had these needs covered, as well as a rolling restroom (which with kids I’d also consider essential as this is another amenity you’ll go hours without seeing).
  • The Northwest Territories tourism department suggests always having at least one spare tire with you, more if you can, in case of blowouts. The roads in northern Alberta are well-maintained, but this is still solid advice there as well. North of the 60th parallel, the speed limit drops from 100 to 90 km/h and the roads get rougher – the worst bumps are well-marked, but the constant repairs needed to combat the forces of northern nature make for a gruelling battle. Be prepared to slow down and take your time over patchy pavement, especially transitions onto and off of bridges.

  • Also, be aware that northern driving is exhausting. It’s not that the roads are especially difficult themselves: Northern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories are prairie country, so highways tend to be flat with about 20 yards cleared on either side to make wildlife easier to spot quickly. But the constant need to keep your eyes aimed far up the road and scanning for potential obstacles, coupled with the repetitive scenery – the trees get shorter as you go further north, but not much else changes very often – mean that driving days feel long very quickly.
  • One thing that isn’t a stress on this route is fuel. I found that gas stations within 300 km of each other were easy to come by. High Level, Hay River, and Fort Smith are the major settlements on the route, and all have multiple brand options. The price can go up 20 cents per litre or more further north, though, so you’ll need a healthy budget. Getting from Edmonton to Fort Smith and back ran us more than $500 in fuel alone.

The North, Open for Adventure

It’s a shame that Wood Buffalo National Park doesn’t have any facilities that can truly be considered front-country. With eco- and adventure tourism going through such a boom, it’s a lost opportunity. But the nearby lesser-known territorial campgrounds offer an appealing alternative and make this journey far more accessible to the average family. The Fort Smith territorial park is a short drive from Wood Buffalo’s key sights, and the manager at the Hay River park said that a lot of people who stay there get up early to drive into Wood Buffalo for day trips. That’s definitely a viable option for those looking to fit this in and then carry on northward to Yellowknife.

Am I glad I went? Yes, without question. Life is too short to leave bucket-list items unchecked. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to see the Northwest Territories with my own eyes, and now I know. Some of our experiences there, like seeing wild wood bison and camping on the shores of Great Slave Lake, will stay with us for a lifetime.

Would I do it again? It’s a tough drive, but I’d consider doing it again with better preparations and safeguards, a vehicle more suited to the north’s roughest roads, and someone to share driving duties with.

After all, not only did we not cross the Arctic Circle, we didn’t even go past the tree line. And despite my best efforts, my daughter still hasn’t seen an aurora.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, the intrigue of the far north will call us back.